Friday, May 25, 2018

Sheffield


Base station

I’ve meant for a while to take a photograph of one of London’s few surviving police boxes – those blue kiosks from which police officers and the public could get in direct contact with a police station – but the other day I saw this rather different one in Sheffield and thought it would make an interesting alternative.

Sheffield’s police began to install boxes like this one by the Town Hall during the 1920s and continued to use them until the 1960s, by which time officers were equipped with personal radios. Each one had a telephone that any member of the police or the public could use to report a crime or other emergency – it was accessible from the outside by opening the small cupboard door beneath the window. In addition officers, as well as calling out from the box, would visit it every hour, when the station telephoned through any important information. Officers out on patrol often used the boxes for meal breaks or even for doing a bit of quick report writing. The Sheffield boxes, which had a generous, squarish plan as opposed to the smaller London boxes, had just about enough space to make this possible.* The box also contained a first aid kit – I wonder if people got to this through another small door located where there is now a silver plaque outlining the history of police boxes.

Anyone familiar with London’s police boxes (and that is a lot of people since the Doctor in the TV series Dr Who uses one¶) will be surprised that this Sheffield example looks very different – green, not blue and with a curved roof rather than the stepped pyramidal roof of the London design. Police boxes in London were blue and boxes in some cities were red, apparently: I suppose any strong colour worked provided that the box was recognisable. One feature that was common to all the boxes was a blue light (long gone from this one) which was controlled from a central point and a could be made to flash to summon an officer.

Before the advent of proper mobile communications, police boxes must have been invaluable to the constabulary. According to one source, they were even used as temporary lockups in some towns – although I doubt that the wooden walls and glass windows of this one would have made it very suitable for this. But as a communications aid, this simple design, smart enough to take its place on a city street, big enough to contain a desk and a stool, and bright enough to be seen, no doubt served the city and its police force well.

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* Edinburgh’s fine blue police boxes, of neo-Classical design with broken pediments, were of a rectangular shape and also roomy.

¶ The Doctor’s time machine and spacecraft, the Tardis, took, and takes, and will take the form of a London police box. Such is the success of the long-running series that many British people are now more likely to think of the Doctor than the police when they see one of these.

† For more on police boxes, see the Old Police Cells Museum, here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Covent Garden, London


Uncommon market

An occasional recurring theme of this blog is my memories of places and how buildings and places themselves trigger memories. I alluded to this when I wrote a post about London’s Covent Garden Market a couple of years ago. The Covent Garden area has played a major part in my life. I worked for a publisher in Covent Garden for two stints in the 1980s and 1990s, and at the beginning of the first period, the Resident Wise Woman also worked nearby. It was also sometimes a place to stay on in the evening – I remember it for various meals, summer vertical drinking sessions outside the Lamb and Flag, opera performances, and plays in the Donmar Warehouse Theatre.

Before I worked round there I remember seeing a television film about the area and the market. In my memory, this film of the 1970s was in black and white and was structured around a day in the life of the market. I didn’t remember much else about it, except that it featured evocative shots of market and streets, and of market people and traffic in abundance…and that the background music was Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, the three movements (fast–slow–fast) of which reflected the changing pace of life throughout 24 mostly hectic hours.

A few years ago it occurred to me that I might be able to find this film on the internet. So I googled it, and found Lindsay Anderson’s marvellous 1950s documentary Every Day Except Christmas (1957), which covers a day in the life of the market in beautifully lit black and white cinematography. But it wasn’t the film I’d remembered. There was no Beethoven music, and Anderson’s film was made in the 1950s (I’d associated my memory with the imminent closure of the fruit and vegetable market in the 1970s), and it was different in other ways I couldn’t pin down. Could there have been another film? I couldn’t find it.

The other day I looked again. And there, among various links to Anderson’s documentary was another. This was a film made for the television arts programme Aquarius, just before the market closed in 1972. First there was a shock: a very staightlaced introduction by presenter Humphrey Burton, square black spectacles and all, revealed that  it was in colour – but then in 1972 I was probably watching it on my mother’s television set, which was black and white, so my memory of it was naturally in monochrome. And when the introduction was over, the clang of a metal shutter resounded and the opening chord of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 8 Opus 13, the Pathéthique, rang out. In no time at all, we were off with people drinking in the Essex Serpent at 5 am, vans being shoehorned into minimal parking spaces (to the accompaniment of much bleeped-out swearing), and business beginning and after the music’s slow, declamatory opening, film and music were off at a canter, and the market’s frenetic daily activity was underway. As it appears on YouTube the film still has its relentless timecode and a persistent background hiss, but was still good enough to make me gasp, ‘This is it!’

It was a revelation, as a succession of images unfolded and came back to me. Lippy greengrocers, old codgers in pubs, all-night cafés, men in a workshop making ballet shoes, other people making market barrows, ceramics, copper pans, bookbindings, suits of armour, and an aristocratic woman arriving for her job in a publishing company, something I’d be doing a decade after the film was made, although not in a chauffeur-driven car. Most uncanny for me was a point where they were talking about traffic and parked cars blocking the way and into my head came the thought, 'In a moment some blokes are going to pick that car up in their bare hands and move it.' And this is what happened. It was striking that there were still some vestiges of the old area very much there when I first worked there (but then I arrived in 1980 so this was not totally surprising): the ballet shoe shop, Collins's ironmongers ('Four candles'), some of the greasy spoons, Rule's Restaurant (roast beef and suet puds for the well upholstered), the opera house, one of the pubs.

The film was made when there was a very real prospect that huge swathes of the area would be demolished to make way for better roads and modern office buildings. The Covent Garden Community Association made the case for more measured change, and this is what we got – the fruit and vegetable market went, and the boutiques and tourist shops arrived, but most of the streets were preserved and much of the area’s architectural character survives. But the community is different. Few people like those drinking in the Essex Serpent or dropping in to chew the fat at the barrow-makers could afford to live in the area now. That’s a cost of the crowded shops and gentrification and tourism on speed. The film's last shot shows a graffito saying ‘This was home’.


Monday, May 21, 2018

Sheffield

  
White heat

Sheffield, of course, is known above all as a steel town. Even in the commercial city centre, away from the larger forges and factories, we’re often reminded of this. The White Building on Fitzalan Square is an office block of 1908 clad in faience and is one of the many substantial such buildings that reflect the prosperity of this place in the 19th and early-20th centuries – prosperity that was largely down to the steel industry.

The faience cladding was unusual here in 1908 – the dominant hues in this city are red brick, orangey terracotta, and stone. There are more later white buildings (together with the late-20th century’s contributions of concrete in a range of greys) so when this one was erected, it was known as The White Building, as if there was just the one. It certainly stands out, with its flattened arches and unusually shaped pediments above the upper windows, not to mention the surprising, almost rococo swags below the cornice. Gibbs & Flockon,* the architects, did a more than decent job.

But what I most like about it is the way the building acknowledges Sheffield’s industrial activity with a series of ten reliefs of Sheffield trades, by Alfred and William Tory. These are in low relief and beautifully delineate various metalworking jobs, from casting to engraving and planishing. The figures are well modelled, and look as if drawn from life, with both sculptors adept at rendering the surfaces of flesh and garments. If the white surfaces, recalling classical marble, give the reliefs a sense of calm and cool that’s a world away from the heat and noise of a real factory, they still have an authentic feel to them: this looks like real work, combining strength and skill. Above all, the workers, variously employed, are united in their intent concentration on the job in hand.

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* A longstanding Sheffield firm, which changed name as family members and other partners came and went.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Sheffield


Eye-Witness to industry

One of the things that impressed me about Sheffield was that there are still remains of its industrial past right in the centre of the city. Most visitors must be aware of this – a walk down the central Arundel Street reveals a number of former factories; some of them have been beautifully restored; all the buildings are at least in use. My walks around the city took me west of these buildings, until I came to Milton Street and found Eye-Witness Works, which, my Pevsner City Guide to Sheffield tells me, is the only traditional integrated cutlery works still in operation in the city. Except that it isn’t any more: I arrived to find notices on the doors with details of the firm’s new address. Eye-Witness works, meanwhile, bears a ‘for sale’ sign.

What one can see from the street is a long, three-storey brick building that fronts three courtyards. Looking at the brickwork, and the style and position of the windows, it’s clear that the building is actually the result of several different construction phases. The part in the foreground, with the round-topped windows at first-floor level, is from about 1852, the other parts came later, with the long range at the far end added in about 1875, when the older sections were also heightened (see the change in the colour of the brickwork). The early part of the building, at least, is not totally utilitarian – the corner has some stone dressing and there’s a Venetian window above the first cart entrance, to add a visual highlight. Mostly though, this factory is plain and businesslike and must have served its users well for decades.

The lettering however, as can be seen in my lower photograph, is barely hanging on. The paintwork has deteriorated and some of the letters have fallen off, while others are coming to pieces. They look to be wooden letters, and naturally have not proved as durable as the carved stone signs on some of the other former factories in the city. It would be wonderful if the purchasers restored this lettering, so that we are never in any doubt that this was ‘Eye-Witness Works, Cutlery and Plate Manufacturers’, the message as clear as it was at the time the sign was first erected, perhaps in the late-19th century, when it must have been as shiny as Sheffield plate.
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* I have a feeling there may be one or two more Sheffield posts coming up.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Sheffield


Marks of quality

To Sheffield, where I gave a talk and spent a day or so admiring the architecture. Having little time, I restricted myself to the city centre and marvelled at the variety –  of stone and brick, industrial and commercial, old and new, filigree and brutalist. One of the highlights for me were a number of architectural sculptures by the Tory family, who were active in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. First there was Frank Tory, who got his training at Lambeth College of Art before coming to Sheffield to produce carvings for the corn exchange (no longer standing). As well as doing a range of architectural carving he taught at the Sheffield College of Art and among his pupils were his twin sons Alfred Herbert and William Frank.

Here’s a bit of Frank’s work, on Parade Chambers, an 1883 building for Pawson and Brailsford, a company of printers and stationers. The architects, M E Hadfield and Sons, gave his client an impressive Tudor style building in brick with stone dressings, with offices on the upper floors, shops below. It’s a memorable building, with ornate gables, turrets, oriels, and tall chimneys, but what sets it apart for me is the carving on the stonework. The panel in my photograph is in a window above the doorway and features heads of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Caxton within wreaths of leaves.

With this panel Pawson and Brailsford put themselves firmly in the tradition of great English printers – Caxton was thought to have introduced printing to England and his first known book was an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This was not an unusual line for printers to take – I’ve noticed a printer doing a similar thing in Bristol. However, Edward Everard, the Bristolian printer, also linked himself with a great modern master, William Morris, and chose the latest Art Nouveau style for the decoration of his building. This Sheffield firm by contrast emphasised tradition in both architecture and decorative subject matter and their use of first-class architectural sculptors also says something about their commitment to quality.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Ledbury. Herefordshire


Well worth the trouble

The shops of F W Woolworth were a feature of British high streets until they closed, during the financial crisis, in 2008. Quite a few Woolworth’s shop fronts remain, albeit adapted with new signs and often new colour schemes. Once you get your eye in, you start to spot signs that a building used to be a Woolworth’s – floor mosaics by the door with the Woolworth’s ‘W in a diamond’ symbol, lion masks, sometimes the lovely early-20th century doors with polished finger-plates and kick-plates. Some of their fronts were Art Deco designs from the 1920s or 1930s, but the company also built neo-Georgian facades in some towns – perhaps mindful of the need to fit into streets where there was plenty of historic architecture.

That’s the case in Ledbury, where historic buildings abound and Woolworth’s built this brick frontage in 1937. Although I could see no floor mosaics or lions, the shop window, with its broad lobby, narrow mullions, and stall riser clad in polished granite are very much the kind of thing the Woolworth’s went in for. The glazing bars must have been repainted bright red – many Woolworth’s window frames were done in a bronze finish.

The neo-Georgian part above the shop window is neat and polite, in the sense that it doesn’t impinge on the character of the street, which includes a mix of Tudor timber-framed, Georgian, Victorian, and later buildings. A very Woolworth touch is that the sash windows have opaque glass, as usual for an upstairs floor in one of their stores, because the stockroom was generally on this floor. The company that took the shop over have knowingly capitalised on Woolworth’s heritage by adopting a similar name. They have been here a while now: no doubt their former Woolworth’s premises have proved a good home.

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For more on the history of Woolworth’s, see Kathryn Morrison’s excellent book Woolworth’s: 100 Years on the High Street, which I reviewed here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pershore, Worcestershire


Stamp of approval

I suppose quite a few people must have looked at the front Pershore’s Town Hall on the town’s High Street and thought that its neo-Georgian style was not inappropriate for a place with quite a few Georgian brick buildings. It’s well proportioned, substantial without being overwhelming, and seems to have a air of authority about it. But this building hasn’t always been the Town Hall. It was built in 1932 as the Post Office – and the qualities seem just as fitting to its original purpose. When you’re there you can guess the building’s former use from the royal monograms and crowns on the keystones above the doorway.

In the interwar period, and again for a few years after World War II, this kind of neo-Georgian was used widely for town Post Offices. If they hoped to convey such virtues as reliability and authority by using neo-Georgian, the style also went well with Royal Mail’s the signage – now gone, of course, from this particular building – with its Classically inspired lettering.* Now, when many of the GPO’s originally services have been hived off, many Post Offices in major towns are mere counters in branches of the Co-op or W H Smith. In such a context, Post Offices like Pershore’s seem to come from another world.

It’s good that this example has found another role. It would be a shame to loose that neat Flemish bond brickwork, all those glazing bars (especially the ones on the ground floor, with the central window subtly different from those flanking it), the segmentally headed dormers, the elaborate tops to the doorways with their carved keystones. I’m sure most Pershore residents give the building their stamp of approval.

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* There is an example of the lettering in a previous piece I wrote about Post Offices, here.